A spiritual teacher’s long and winding road from Baptist to Buddhist, New York to Utah

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 06:38 pm

In his search for truth, the teacher, religious leader, husband and father finds enlightenment, meaning and a mission — to rise above himself and lift others.

The first thing people want to know about the handsome black man, with the deep bass voice, shaved head and one shoulder poking out from saffron-and-maroon robes, is what to call him.

At Salt Lake City's Urgyen Samten Ling Temple, he has been known as "Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen," or "Lama Thupten," for short, but recently was elevated to the honorific position "Rinpoche."

His adoptive parents named him Jerry Allen Gardner, so at the University of Utah he is known as "Professor Gardner." To his wife, he's just "Jerry."

The next question is how a 67-year-old Guam-born, Selma-bred, fast-talking former Baptist from the mean streets of New York City ended up as an orthodox Buddhist in Mormon-dominated Utah.

And last, why would a guy immersed in bedrock beliefs about life's transitoriness anchor himself to the Beehive State for more than two decades, yet feel most at home in the mountains of earthquake-prone Nepal?

The answers to these puzzles are as multifaceted as a Tibetan mandala — or as the man himself.

"I am only a servant," the lama-turned-rinpoche says modestly, sitting cross-legged on a raised platform in his temple's office. "Any redeeming qualities or values I may have come through the kindness and blessings of my teachers."

They taught him, he says, to keep his feet on the ground and not get a big head because of a title, to seek compassion and vision, to be a catalyst for good in other people's lives.

That's not so different, though, from what he learned in a faraway time and place at the feet of his parents, grandparents and "aunties."

Truth be known, he says, he always felt a bit like an outsider.

The journey begins • Baby Jerry was born on a U.S. military base in Guam in Micronesia to unmarried parents who immediately gave him up for adoption to another military couple, Willie Lee (mother) and Willie Gardner (father).

"I was part African-American, part Portuguese, and part who-knows-what-else," Gardner says with a laugh.

The Gardners lived in mid-1960s Alabama, where their only child witnessed signs of racism: KKK crosses burning on lawns, segregated drinking fountains and seating for blacks in the backs of buses.

And that bridge in Selma, where civil-rights protests took place? He knew it well.

At his Baptist Sunday school, Gardner recalls, "I was the kid in class who asked odd questions."

He was also a child who could see the future, he says, and witnessed "visions in the sky."

Times were tough, though, and Gardner's father kept getting sent on various military assignments, so the young boy was shipped off, first to grandparents, then to aunts and uncles in New York City's black neighborhoods — that is, "the projects."

"My auntie was a connoisseur of religion," he says. "We attended Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist or whatever Christian churches she wanted. We were always in church."

Freedom, she taught him, lies with learning to read and write, being educated, using precise vocabulary and eschewing profanity. She was stern and her home disciplined, arming him with the necessary skills to survive and forge ahead.

In fourth grade, he discovered the saxophone.

"The arts were crucial in the development of my spirituality," he notes. "I practiced more than an hour a day."

Playing his sax in a small practice room, he says, "was like meditation."

He and his friends made music together, and then took up martial arts, both of which gave them a grounding "in the midst of gang violence," Gardner says. "We learned to confront danger fearlessly and not be a victim."

Still, he has had a gun pointed at his head, been jailed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffered indignities because of his race.

"I knew that if drugs didn't get you, if police or someone in the neighborhood didn't get you, if you were able to deal with the chaos and dysfunction of society, if you don't fit in society, if you spoke against the status quo and were not silenced or killed," he says, "you could be a benefit to others."

Though he always presumed he would be a musician, Gardner opted to study psychology at Cameron University in Oklahoma followed by Staten Island Community College and Fordham University, both in New York. He planned to work in drug prevention, empowering users through knowledge — when along came Buddhism.

A new path appears • In 1968, the future lama came across several intriguing Buddhist tomes, including "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," but felt he needed a teacher to guide him in his studies.

He was steered to a tiny Tibetan shop in the heart of New York, where he found Lama Kazi Rinpoche, a teacher of teachers.

"When you die, would you like to turn into a rainbow?" the Rinpoche asked Gardner, who answered in the affirmative. "It's done."

From there, the two studied regularly. It all felt right to the eager student, like a truth he had known his whole life.

Before long, Gardner trekked frequently to India and Nepal, where he became a disciple of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

The American embraced these teachings and rituals that would form the core of his identity, tying together all his passions into a complete circle.

He became familiar with the three jewels — the Buddha; the teachings of the Dharma, or Buddhist path; and all the path's followers, known as Sangha. He learned about Buddhism's Vajrayana tradition, also called the Diamond Way, and its reverence for Guru Rinpoche, a seventh-century Indian monk who brought Buddhism to Tibet and is considered by some to be the second Buddha.

Gardner came to understand the various deities — both compassionate and wrathful — who need to be embraced and fended off respectfully. He learned to chant songs of praise and to light lamps of enlightenment.

Oh, and he picked up some Tibetan words, too.

The disciplined life • The Buddhist convert, steeped in faith, arrived in Colorado in 1975, to teach and perform ballet, modern dance and mime on the Navajo reservation.

There, he met Jean LaSarre Gardner, then a VISTA volunteer, dancer and special-education teacher.

"He didn't sweep me off my feet," LaSarre Gardner recalls. "We were friends, and it grew from there."

The future wife was her own kind of seeker. Raised Methodist in Illinois, she had, by this time, left behind any serious Christian practice.

Even so, she wasn't about to adopt Gardner's faith merely because they were in a relationship.

"I was interested in hearing about it, just as I am in hearing about other spiritual paths," she says, "but I purposely did not jump into it just because he was doing it."

For the next five years or so, the two lived together in Phoenix and Guam, while Gardner practiced his Buddhism — and came repeatedly to Utah — and LaSarre Gardner studied it.

Finally, in Nepal in 1991, she became convinced on her own of the validity of Tibetan Buddhism. The two married there in a simple ceremony conducted by a monk.

"Our teacher gave us some teachings and practices we should do together, like sharing our first tea," she explains, "and then tying our two white scarves together."

After two more marriage rituals — one at a U.S. courthouse and one with family and friends in Illinois — they resumed their joint lives in Utah, building a community and temple together.

The Gardners worked side by side — not as teacher and pupil but as co-teachers.

People are dazzled by her husband's insights and charisma, LaSarre Gardner says, but she knows him as a regular guy who watches football and is a dad to their daughter, Abriel, a dancer about to graduate from a Salt Lake City high school.

"I never intended to marry a lama; it was an adjustment," LaSarre Gardner says. "He glides in and out of these roles that are all part of him."

Both trained as teachers, they teach each other.

An energized existence • Even before 1997, when he was ordained as a Tibetan lama, Gardner had a whirling schedule of classes — establishing a meditation center, teaching movement, martial arts and dance at the U., and creating a school and Buddhist temple in an old Mormon meetinghouse on Salt Lake City's west side.

After many trips to Nepal and India, he earned a doctorate in Buddhist studies with an emphasis in ritual and meditation from the Ngagyur Samten Chockhorling Institute in Manali, India.

It was a region of the world that gave birth to his particular brand of Buddhism, a place he sees as mystical, even magical. A place where he fits.

"The Buddha was born in Nepal," the then-lama says. "The patron saint of our tradition has a direct connection to Boudhanath [west of Kathmandu], where he received the teaching direction connected to antiquity."

Many masters came and practiced, he says, and there are many revered relics, hermitages and stupas in the area, which became a haven for Tibetans who fled after the Chinese invasion. The lama led several groups of Utah students to study with his teachers there.

Gary Stephenson is one of them.

A retired Salt Lake City psychiatrist, Stephenson began studying Buddhism a decade or more ago and liked the philosophy.

But it wasn't until he met Lama Thupten at the Lotus Festival in 2007 that he considered becoming a practitioner.

"In college, I had some interest in Asian religion," Stephenson says, "but when I started going to the temple, it felt like home."

The lama was generous, gentle and welcoming, the student says. But he also could be exacting.

"He will push people who are continuing to come," says Stephenson, who goes by the name Sonam. "He wants them to regularly attend to learn more and more, do more, and practice more."

The convert says he's had his moments when he thinks all the work — getting up daily at 4:15 a.m., putting in 40 hours a week, going to evening classes — is "nuts."

But Stephenson sees how his teacher has integrated Buddhism into his very being and, witnessing that, knows he never could give up.

For his part, the lama-turned-rinpoche is willing to teach others, to speak the truths he has discovered, practiced and lived.

What of his circuitous route to this place, geographically and spiritually?

His teacher, Lama Kazi once taunted him, calling him "black boy" — or worse.

"If that upsets you," the master told the future Rinpoche, "you are not free."

Everyone must rise above color, nationality, religions, boundaries, barriers.

And so the African-American Tibetan Buddhist teacher, dancer, friend, husband and father in Salt Lake City wants only to become "a divine instrument to be used."

His goal?

"To be fully human and to rise above human frailty. … To inspire others."

To be more than just Jerry.

pstack@sltrib.coM Twitter@religiongal